Louis Theroux investigates everything from birth to death in new docu-series

2019-01-18 14:30
Documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux.

Cape Town - British documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux has a new three-part documentary series called Altered States.

The series which airs Tuesdays at 22:15 on BBC Brit (DStv 120) explores how modern America deals with birth, love and death.

In the first episode Louis Theroux talks to women choosing to hand over their own flesh and blood in open adoptions, he then travels to Portland where he explores non-traditional family set-ups.

In the final episode he heads to West Coast of America to explore the ramifications of 2016’s Aid in Dying legislation that allows a person to take a prescribed cocktail of drug that will result in their death.

Below a Q&A with Louis Theroux on the documentary:

Tell us a bit about the documentary series?

Well can I say there are loose themes in this series. The title is Altered States although we didn’t set out initially to do the three themes. The first one we shot was about adoption in America where vulnerable mums feel unable to keep their babies and sign up with agencies who act almost as match-makers, matching them with mums and dads looking to adopt. The prospective adoptive parents pay the bills and the expenses of the vulnerable mums. So it’s a little bit like a baby market, a baby business, although there’s more to it than that.

In the course of doing that we thought maybe we should do something else: How increasingly in America, particularly in California, people with terminal illnesses now have the option of ending their own life with drugs. And we thought well here are two ways that birth and death were being done slightly differently. And then polyamory came up. So the series is about Americans handling life stages and intimate, difficult decisions in a different and slightly futuristic way.

Did making the films give you pause to think about your own mortality, marriage and family?

Definitely, all of those. The death one is the one that really gives you some perspective on the important things I suppose. What really struck me was that Gus had really led a very full and interesting life. He was cut from different cloth to me in some ways, I suppose. In other words he was the sort of alpha guy who was into motorbiking and being a bit of a hell raiser. He got the most out of life, partied with his buddies. I made a sort of mental note that when the time comes to die, as we all must one day, make sure you can look back and think, ‘I’ve led as full a life as I could have done’.

They use that old cliche ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ but it turns out it’s not all small stuff. There are big things. Getting things like love right, making sure you have had an emotionally rich existence, is a big thing. And I thought a lot about that after seeing Gus on his death bed.

The idea of somehow commemorating your death, as you would a marriage, a birth, a christening, to me makes perfect sense. I was unlucky enough to lose an aunt during the filming of this and she bizarrely also died of pancreatic cancer. She clung on for weeks and weeks. She lived in Massachusetts which doesn’t have an aided dying statute. What I realised, I suppose - without talking about her too much because it’s a personal thing and I don’t want to intrude on her daughters - but from my own sense, my feeling was, well why shouldn’t it be a party? Why shouldn’t it be talked about and planned and thought about: Something that brings people together? Isn’t it weird that funerals are the point that everyone comes together when the one person who’s supposed to be the focus can get nothing out of it? Have the funerals before their death!

It might be hard to explain though. Imagine if you said to your granny, ‘We’re having your funeral next week’? You’d have to explain, ‘We want to celebrate your life while you’re here’.

A scene in the docu-series Altered States.

How did you find people’s willingness to discuss these things?

As ever there’s an issue over anything that’s massively stressful and intimate although that’s perhaps easier to find in America than the UK where I guess Americans have fewer hang-ups about putting things out in the public sphere.

In Choosing Death we follow three people who are approaching this decision of wishing to end their lives either through pain and suffering or terminating their illness. And I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so anxious about getting the contributors, going into it.

You’ve been doing this for 20 years and what always amazes me about you is to control your emotions when you’re filming. How do you do it?

It’s funny you should ask that because it’s probably what I’m asked more than anything, why don’t I react or emote? And it’s sort of embarrassing to answer that in general, when in the moment, I feel oddly detached. Not completely but I’m in a sort of professional mode. It doesn’t require an enormous effort of will or restraint on my part not to burst into tears or be overly emotional or inappropriate.

The weird thing is that sometimes when watching the programme I get more emotional than I did at the time. Does that even make sense? I don’t know why that is.

A scene in the docu-series Altered States.

(Photos supplied: BBC)

Read more on:    tv  |  documentary

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.